People often compare kids and animals. We're drawn to their honesty, innocence and trusting natures, while their "joie de vivre" reminds us to revel in every moment and live our lives to the fullest. Likewise, animals and kids are drawn to -- and benefit from -- each other.

And that's where volunteering comes in. Although 16 is the standard minimum age to volunteer at the Humane Society for Seattle/King County, the shelter felt it needed to respond to the repeated requests for opportunities for younger teens. Now in its fourth year, the Humane Teen Club conducts educational presentations and community service projects with carefully selected 13- to 15-year-olds.

"The goal of the group is to instill awareness of animal issues in our community, and also to promote compassion and respect," says Community Education Coordinator Jill Schnaiberg. "We hope to empower [the kids], and make them aware that at 13, they can have an impact."

The Teen Club meets once a month from September to June at the Humane Society's Bellevue headquarters, and has been so successful that people nationwide inquire about the program. Although the club takes more organization than groups dealing with older kids, it demonstrates that younger teens can also contribute with proper guidance. Schnaiberg believes the group is important because "there is tremendous interest and teens are really talented. Some have incredible ideas and passion. This provides an outlet for them so they can make a difference." In addition, graduates of the program are permitted to bypass the normal 16-year-old requirement and apply directly for open volunteer positions.

The Lynnwood-based Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) also encourages young teens to get involved. Communications Officer Mary Leake Schilder believes that "kids have a natural empathy for animals. We want to foster and encourage that because they're the future protectors of companion animals and wildlife."

The most recent recipient of PAWS' "Youth Helping Animals" award is 13-year-old Catherine Hannan of Seattle's Salmon Bay Middle School. Catherine created an organization called Sun Puppies, which hosts fundraising walks in support of rural animal shelters. The group's first walk raised $750 -- a portion of which paid for a seriously ill puppy's surgery.

The organization also does a lot of work with school-age kids through its "Kids Who Care" humane education program. The six-lesson course covers companion, wild and farm animals through lectures, hands-on activities, games and role-playing. Teen groups are also invited to do special projects at the shelter, such as spread bark on dog-walking trails or stuff envelopes for mailing. "We want to involve kids more in the work we do, and recognize the work they do, and the gifts they give to animals throughout the year," Schilder says.

PAWS requires unpaid staff to be 18 or older, but a standout among their ranks is 18-year-old Amanda Robinson of Burien, who earned the "Wildlife Care Assistant Volunteer of the Year for 2005" honor. She's put in over 350 hours at PAWS' Wildlife Rehabilitation Center cleaning cages, doing laundry, preparing food for the animals, assisting staff with medical care, and hand-feeding baby songbirds and mammals. Her dedication compels her to frequently arrive at 8 a.m. and stay until 10 p.m. during busy summer months.

It's clear that teens have much to offer organizations that rely on volunteer staff. "Kids are more enthusiastic, and have a fresh perspective on trying to help make things better for animals," Schilder says. "Plus they plain old have more energy than some of the rest of us."

Diane Dash is a Seattle-based freelance writer specializing in companion animal issues. Her "kids" consist of six rescued felines.

Three more ways younger teens can help

1. Building a bat house, leaving frogs and lizards in their homes, or creating habitats by planting native flora counteract some of the damage humans have done to the environment.

2. Conducting food or toy drives, holding bake sales or car washes to raise money, or making blankets for animals awaiting adoption at the shelter stretches non-profit dollars and provides comfort for homeless pets.

3. Foster parents are always needed for young puppies or kittens, or older animals that could use time away from the kennel. Mom or Dad need to take responsibility for the foster animals, but kids can learn how to nurture, care for and empathize with another creature that is dependent on their aid.

Resources

Other volunteer opportunities for younger teens

For ages 13-plus

  • Woodland Park Zoo (www.zoo.org) has positions including their Zoo Corps volunteer program
  • The Best Little Rabbit, Rodent, and Ferret House in Seattle (www.rabbitrodentferret.org) also accepts kids under 14 with parental supervision
  • Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center in Woodinville (www.littlebit.org) also has work parties for younger kids.
  • Pigs Peace Sanctuary for pot-bellied pigs in Stanwood (www.pigspeace.org) states that "no volunteers or talents will be turned away."

For ages 16-plus

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